New Names for God

Alex Braver
December 18, 2012
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Each of the many Jewish social movements mentioned in this month’s issue of Sh’ma magazine, ranging from the Jewish LGBT movement to Chabad, seem to make particular claims about the nature of Judaism and Jewish values.  How can it be that a left-wing Jewish activist fighting for tikkun olam can cite the same texts, traditions, and God as a right-wing religious Zionist preparing for the coming of the messiah?  Maybe one or the other is distorting the words of Torah, manipulating and reading selectively until they come to their preferred conclusion?

On the one hand, the rabbinic tradition is insistent that we avoid this.  In Pirkei Avot, the rabbis claim that “the sword” comes down upon the world on account of those who teach Torah that is not according to Jewish Law (5:11).  This sharply worded view seems, on its face, to suggest that there is great danger in changing the True meaning of Jewish teachings.  It seems to imply that there is one proper way to understand Judaism, and misunderstanding it can have grave consequences.

The example of Jacob our patriarch, however, might provide a different model.  Perhaps we can imagine a world where each social movement can make its own claim on Torah and the Jewish tradition.  Maybe there is a way to see Jewish teachings as deeper and more complicated than a simple truth.  In this view, Judaism is not a yes-or-no, right-or-wrong list of thou-shalt’s and thou-shalt-not’s, but rather a richer and deeper language for expressing our values.

 

 

As he fled his parents house after deceiving his father and stealing the birthright from his brother Esau, Jacob–desperate and alone–has an encounter with God, a dream of an angelic ladder reaching up into the heavens, and a promise of a continued covenant.  Genesis describes the beginning of Jacob’s encounter:

יא וַיִּפְגַּע בַּמָּקוֹם וַיָּלֶן שָׁם, כִּי-בָא הַשֶּׁמֶשׁ, וַיִּקַּח מֵאַבְנֵי הַמָּקוֹם, וַיָּשֶׂם מְרַאֲשֹׁתָיו; וַיִּשְׁכַּב, בַּמָּקוֹם הַהוּא.(בראשית כח יא)

11 He came upon a certain place and stopped there for the night, for the sun had set.  Taking one of the stones of that place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place. (Genesis 28:11 NJPS)


The Kedushat Levi (R. Levi Yitzchak of Berditchiv, a Hassidic commentator from the late 18th century) imagines this scene more mystically, creatively re-reading four words in order to bring us a new teaching about the nature of human capacity to understand divine knowledge.  His complex re-reading is as follows:

 

 

  • First, “המקום” (the place) becomes a synonym for God, whose omnipresence makes God “the Place of the universe”.
  • Second, the “אבנים” (stones), which can be used to create structures, are reimagined as letters, which can be used to build words.
  • Third, “מראשותיו” (under his head) is re-read as Jacob’s mind and thoughts.
  • Finally, וישכב (lay down) is split in half into two words, whose new meaning become ויש כ”ב (there are 22) referring to a mystical 22-letter name of God

 

 

So, re-reading the verse according to the Kedushat Levi’s intricate reinterpretation, we might end up with a new translation that looks something like this:

“He came upon the Omnipresent One and stopped there for the night, for the sun had set.  Taking from the letters of the Omnipresent One, he put it into the source of his thoughts, and there was the 22-letter name of God.”

 

The Kedushat Levi does not imagine Jacob encountering God as a passive recipient of divine knowledge.  He does not come upon המקום–The Place–simply to read the letters that have already been spelled out for him.  Rather, Jacob knows instinctually that the encounter with God demands of us that we take the letters, words, and ideas that we see scattered around us in our sacred texts, traditions, and values, and then rearrange them using our own thoughts and our own experiences into new, more complex combinations that form longer and more deeply meaningful names for the divine.

I am grateful to be living at a time in which we have uncovered and reinterpreted new faces of Torah, where major advances have been made in seeking out expanded notions of divinity.  I am proud to believe in a Judaism that sees the divine name present when women and gays are ordained as rabbis, that expands the boundaries of who the “neighbor” we must love as ourselves really is, and that has room for a plurality of theologies and practices.  And as I live out my Jewish life in this way, I do not see the sword coming down upon the world to punish my teachers, who (heaven forbid!) may be teaching Torah that is not according to Jewish Law.  Rather, I see–like Jacob–a ladder to heaven, to a broader, more loving, and more compassionate understanding of what it means to be a Jew.  “Surely,” Jacob says after his dream, “God is in this place.”

Reinterpreting the tradition and integrating it into our own lives and thoughts, then, is a mystical name of God.  And Jacob does this not by throwing out stones he dislikes, or by rejecting letters or words he thinks are useless.  He simply rearranges what’s already there.  Each person or movement–from Chabad to the Jewish LGBT movement– that fights for its own understanding of Judaism in this way is fighting to teach their own glimpse of a new truth of the divine name.  And like Jacob, rather than rejecting parts of the tradition or turning away from contradictory texts, our task is not to ignore them but to put them under our heads, into the source of our thoughts, and to rearrange them to produce new meaning.

But what about the sword from Pirkei Avot, that comes down upon the world on account of those who teach Torah that is not according to the black-and-white “true” meaning of Jewish Law?  Maybe the best way to understand this teaching is that we can bring the sword down upon ourselves when we read Torah against its deepest and truest meaning.  We hear far too often how members of our community can misinterpret the tradition, rearranging the lettered-stones into distortions of God’s name, invoking it for intolerance and violence, for baseless hatred and arrogance, all different types of swords we have unleashed on the world by reading Judaism out of narrowness, unkindness, and fear.

 

We must exercise great caution when following Jacob’s example of rearranging God’s letters into the letters of a new divine name.  If done properly, we have the potential to uncover new faces of Torah, to increase love and kindness in the world.  If we do not, as the rabbinic tradition teaches us, we bring down the sword upon the world.  It is our task as Jews, however, to engage in this work, no matter where we stand, no matter what social movement we belong to.  Because The Place is everywhere we are, and the letters are waiting for us to find them.

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Alex Braver is a rabbinic fellow at B'nai Jeshurun and a third-year rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary. He has also served as a student chaplain, studied at Yeshivat Hadar, and tutored remedial math and English at a charter school in Boston. He graduated from Brandeis University in 2009 with majors in history and politics.

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